Researchers’ Forum – Me, my career and the REF

An old Leyland bus in orange and black livery promoting the University of the West of England

Get on at UWE! A photo by Nick Rice (CC BY-ND 2.0)

At a recent Researchers’ Forum at UWE Bristol we explored the topic of researcher career development within the context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). As the dust settles from the REF 2014 it appears to still be at the centre of many discussions in the university research environment. There is still a bit of uncertainty about exactly when the next REF will take place and exactly how this will be measured. Indeed, HEFCE have announced they will be consulting on proposals on the finer details in November 2016.

However, reading between the lines the next cycle will not be vastly different from REF 2014.

The question was asked, how do up and coming researchers prepare for the next REF and what things should they focus on from a career development point of view?

We brought in Sara Shinton who has been involved in the career development of researchers up and down the country for many years to act as our facilitator of the day. Sara captured many of the salient points from the days discussion (see the further resources below).

The voices of experience

A large part of the day was devoted to hearing from academic colleagues at UWE who have already experienced the previous assessment cycles and navigated their way through. The intention was to provide a number of different perspectives on the broad question.

The presentations were captured on video and are made available here using Panopto which requires viewers to sign in with a UWE username and password. Simply click on the thumbnail image to be directed to the presentation.

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Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign-in required]

Professor Glenn Lyons (Associate Dean for Research and Researchers’ Forum Convenor) introduces the REF in terms of its broader context in university strategic thinking and encourages the idea the it is an exercise that rewards good research rather than being an end in itself.




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Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign-in required]

Dr Kieran McCartan (Associate Professor in Criminology) shares his experience as a researcher building his reputation and profile through the last three research assessment periods.





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Presentaton via Panopto [UWE sign in required]

Dr Lauren Devine (Associate Professor in Law) gave her viewpoint on balancing the demands of teaching workload, finishing a doctorate and aiming high at applying for research funding.





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Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign in required]

Dr Shawn Sobers (Associate Professor in Lens Media) related how his experience of the REF enabled him to construct a coherent narrative that described his diverse research project work with an emphasis on how the impact of that work could be clearly articulated.




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Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign in required]

The Q&A session that wrapped it all up







Summary and further resources

Key points (captured by Sara Shinton)

  • REF is a transparent means of distributing £2 billion of public money for research.
  • REF research outputs come from individuals.
  • REF impact and environment come from institutions.
  • HEFCE has published the impact case studies from REF2014 online.
  • REF should be constantly on your radar even when it is 5 or 6 years away.
  • The institution will decide on how to submit evidence to the greatest benefit to the institution. You cannot take it personally if this means you are not submitted and it is not a negative judgment on your research.
  • Aiming for REF submission will help you to aim high with your research
  • Impact case studies require evidence so think far in advance about the narrative you would like to create and what information you need to collect.
  • There are a number of internal funds which will help you to develop your research.
  • Talk to people internally with experience and ask for advice.
  • It’s all about your research – focus on doing good work and being able to explain why it is important.
  • Learn to react positively to constructive criticism (even when very negative).
  • Impact is about research that meets a need rather than terribly complicated ideas.
  • Funders can reduce risk by supporting people with a track record of success – internal funding can help to demonstrate this.
  • Take a long term view of your work – what do you want to ultimately achieve?
  • You must be able to connect all the dots in your profile and make sense of your work.
  • You need to talk to people about what impact means – especially non-academic partners as their perspectives are critical.

Questions to help connect your career and the REF

  1. What do you want to be known for in 10 years?
  2. What do you need to start (and stop) doing to achieve this?
  3. What are the personal challenges facing you?
  4. What will you do to address these?
  5. What challenges come from the University and external sources?
  6. What do you want to be different to help you succeed as a researcher?

Supporting links

Ten REF tips based on personal experience from Professor Glenn Lyons:

Research Power is explained here

4* papers, notes and video clips from an earlier Researchers’ Forum event here

A guide developed through workshops with academics on their strategies for building an engaged audience for their publications.

Impact case studies The case studies which were submitted in the last REF are all available online and can be searched by institution or unit of assessment.

Funding opportunities and how decisions are made: see for a range of presentations on research funding (Physics focused by largely transferable); see for resources on fellowship funding

Time management

Paul mentioned Deep Work by Cal Newport for strategies to manage fragmented time and distractions

See a blog post based on advice from other academics:

Download a guide to improving time management:

Difficult conversations (a guide to challenging conversations if your time management problem is someone else!)

Research profile – see , Professor Alex Marsh (Bristol) talking about online profiles: and the section on profile building in (a guide for researchers developing academic careers), with more links here

Imposter syndrome


Show me the money!

Last week UWE held one of its bi-annual Researchers’ Forums. This is an event that we have been running for a few years now with the intention of sharing information with and seeking feedback from research staff in the university about issues and/or initiatives that affect what they do. At the last forum in September of last year, we had a very interesting day facilitated by Kate Tapper (Bud Development) that saw both researchers and their managers/principal investigators in the same room at the same time (anyone in the field of researcher development will know this is not easy to achieve!) discussing how best to support the career development of researchers. Probably the most important thing that came out of that day was that researchers wanted their managers and/or leaders to give all the facts about the environment in which they work.

When it came to putting together the programme for the Researchers’ forum this time around, it was decided to honour that request so the senior management in research were asked to come and explain where the money for research comes from and, more importantly, how was it spread around the various activities that UWE undertakes.

Thinking back to when I was a research student and then subsequently a post doctoral researcher, I had no real clue as to how the funding of research really worked, I had some idea but was never really sure of how it was decided who gets what. All I could be sure of from my perspective was that one had to put a lot of effort into writing many applications for funding and seeing very few of them being rewarded as successful. As the years have rolled on and I’ve been immersed in the wider world surrounding research, I’ve a much clearer idea of how it works yet it is still fairly complicated.

I was cheered then when I came across a guide published by the Research Information Network (RIN) that sets out the how the funding of research works on a national level making it that little bit easier to “Show me the money”.

This source for this file is here

The majority of funding for research comes via two routes from Government which is why it is called the “Dual Support” system.

On one side, the Treasury hands over a sum of money to the Government department Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) which is then distributed to the UK Research Councils (there are seven of these that cover the broad discipline base). Universities then make applications to the Research Councils for a number of different schemes.

On the other side, again the Government hand over money to the national funding councils (HEFCE, HEFCW & SFC) which distribute money to universities based on what is called a Quality Related (QR) funding allocation. This is decided by a peer review assessment on a range of subject areas that takes place every 6 years or so. The next exercise is two years away and is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

There are a few other avenues of research funding for example, charities and other government departments that support fairly specific areas of endeavour as well as the private sector who, usually, have a vested interest in the outcomes of the research. Increasingly important is the research funding that is available from the EU.

Why does any of this matter? The distribution of research funding has become something of a game, rather like playing in the football league where the top premiership teams have access to a disproportionate amount of the funding available where as the lower league teams have to work hard at ‘staying up’ and much of the success to be had depends on team tactics.

The best advice that I can give to aspiring researchers is to learn a little bit more about the rules of the game and how to play them to your advantage.